The Leafs played host to the Florida Panthers, who had recently laid 7-2 beating on them. As with all games at this point, it was fraught with playoff significance. Curtis McElhinney got the start in place of the injured Frederik Andersen, while RW Kasperi Kapanen got his first NHL game of the season on the fourth line.
The first part of the period moved very quickly, with some end-to-end movement. The first good chance came about 80 seconds in, when Jonathan Marchessault stepped past Matt Hunwick and was left free to cut through the slot. Marchessault went on to backhand the puck past the far side of the net.
Kasperi Kapanen showed well in his first shift, moving the puck quickly and managing a spike tip on a point shot. Jake Gardiner had the next Leafs’ chance; after a Panthers’ turnover, Jakey cut in towards the net and managed a point-blank shot on James Reimer.
The Panthers pushed back with a couple of good shifts, including some early action from Panthers C Alexander Barkov. Play up to this point had been close to even, with an edge to the Leafs; after this the Leafs dominated the period.
A blur of chances and plays: Toronto had a good Nylander-to-Matthews play high in the Panthers’ zone off a rush, gaining Auston a long shot. Mitch Marner had a tricky little rush, spinning away from contact and making a drop pass. Nazem Kadri had a chance shortside, where he tried and failed to pick a small hole in Reimer’s positioning. Maybe the best thing was that the Leafs prevented sustained Florida zone time—not always a strong point for Toronto this year.
The Leafs’ first line broke the tie. William Nylander gave the puck to Zach Hyman behind the net, who threw it to Matthews in the slot, and Matthews fired it home for his 35th of the season. 1-0 Leafs.
The streak gave Matthews sole possession of the rookie goal scoring record. It also gave Nylander a 12-game point streak. Woo!
Kasperi Kapanen showed his incredible wheels on a rush in towards the net, and he seemed to be serving definite notice that he is too good to be a fourth-liner for long.
The Leafs struck again as Kadri fed the puck up to Brown, who sped away on a two-on-one with Leo Komarov. Brown showed great patience to wait out the defending Michael Matheson, then fed Komarov, who blasted a shot home for 2-0.
After a long 6-on-5 stretch, Toronto went to its first powerplay of the game (Jaromir Jagr went off for hooking Roman Polak.) The Leafs were unable to cash, and the penalty still had 52 seconds remaining when the period ended.
The Leafs were clearly the better team in this period, top to bottom. All of the Leafs were hugely dominant in shot attempts, with no one under 60% and Rielly-Carrick at 100% (!). Tiny sample, sure, but wow. The Panthers for the most part struggled to get to dangerous areas; in fact, after that Barkov chance above, they struggled to do much of anything at all. They finished the period with three (3) shots, which suggests they were seriously fatigued in their third game in four nights.
The Panthers took a penalty off the initial draw for a faceoff violation. The Leafs went to a 5-on-3, but despite some close calls—especially one for Mitch Marner— they were unable to score on the powerplay(s).
The Leafs cooled off a bit, letting Florida back into their zone for their best chances since the early first. McElhinney had to make his first really good save, a seeing-eye glove through traffic. Derek McKenzie blasted a firecracker of a shot off the post behind McBackup, but it turns out it wouldn’t have counted had it gone in—Thomas Vanek pulled down Kasperi Kapanen right before the shot, opening the lane to the Leaf net. Toronto went back to the powerplay.
The Leafs were not impressive on the powerplay; the best chance was Derek McKenzie again, shorthanded. Toronto seemed to have settled into cruise control somewhat, a combination perhaps of score effects and the Panthers having a dead cat bounce (sorry). It looked as if the Leafs were about to get burned for their complacency on a ten-bell chance for Reilly Smith, but Curtis McElhinney somehow got his stick across what seemed to be an open net to keep the puck out.
Curtis McElhinney with a huge stop on Reilly Smith pic.twitter.com/By8kcqFOed— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 29, 2017
The Matthews line showed the next Toronto signs of life, as William Nylander hit Matthews in the high slot for a good chance, but Matthews duffed the shot. There was another fire drill sequence in the Leafs zone, where they turned the puck over repeatedly (the Kadri line, normally good at this sort of thing, was absolute butt.)
An ugly moment took the air out of the arena. Brian Boyle charged in towards the net chasing the puck, and ended up bumping Reimer’s head on the way by.
Brian Boyle with a scary hit to the head of James Reimer; an unfortunate sight that Leafs fans have seen before with veteran netminder. pic.twitter.com/oQR33yTvI8— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) March 29, 2017
Reimer collapsed and looked very much shaken up, especially worrying considering his concussion history, but he skated off under his own power at least. Reto Berra came in in relief, and the Panthers went to powerplay—although it was allegedly because Boyle slashed Colton Sceviour, not because he clipped Reimer.
It was a well-executed penalty kill, by and large, featuring a two-on-one from Connor Brown and newbie Kapanen, as well as a quality block from Morgan Rielly. It seemed to spark the Leafs a little bit, who came out of their second period coma a little bit.
That’s not to say they were that impressive, though, and it finally burnt them. Set up in the Leafs’ zone, Keith Yandle fired a cross-seam pass to Reilly Smith, and he knocked it through McElhinney into the net. Neither Nylander (playing a bit too far off Yandle) nor Matthews (a second too slow covering Smith) looked great on the play. 2-1.
Morgan Rielly got loose on a breakaway, but missed the net. Beyond that the Panthers were everywhere. I got into just-get-out-of-the-period mode. Roman Polak was called for a high-sticking penalty—very unjustly, because it wasn’t his stick that hit Jonathan Huberdeau in the face; it was a puck he hit out of the air. The refs, however, conferred and overturned their call. Good work, refs.
The Leafs survived this period with a 2-1 lead, and that’s the best you can say about it. After dominating the first, the Leafs appeared to think they had the game in the bag, which is always the best way to give a win away. The Matthews line struggled for several shifts this period, and the Leafs’ powerplay looked much less potent than usual. Aie.
Marner lost his helmet on a hit in the corner of the Panthers’ zone, and Tyler Bozak loyally went in to tell Alex Petrovic that that wasn’t okay (though the hit wasn’t dirty; it mostly seemed to be a product of height differential.) Matt Martin subsequently went over to fight Petrovic. The fight was about a draw, and it cost the Leafs an instigator penalty (which Mitch Marner served.)
Just as Leafs Twitter was getting annoyed at one of its usual whipping boys, though, another one stepped up. Leo Komarov took the puck out of the zone, and Zach Hyman streaked up the middle through a hole in the Florida coverage. Komarov hit Hyman, who got into the slot with room and fired a puck past Berra for his fourth shorthanded goal of the season. 3-1!
Despite some close calls getting in on McElhinney, the Leafs survived the rest of the powerplay. Unfortunately, the Panthers promptly got right back to the powerplay; William Nylander got hit hard by Jason Demers, and Nylander’s retaliatory shove knocked Demers down. It was a weak call, if you ask me.
McElhinney did some of his best work in the first minute of this powerplay, staying with the puck in front of the net and getting over to stop a Jonathan Huberdeau shot. Between that and some quality work by the Leafs’ PK forwards, they got through this one too.
McE had another huge save shortly thereafter, too—Jaromir Jagr dropped to Jonathan Huberdeau, who wired a shot off the goalie’s blocker.
Alex Petrovic took a slashing penalty, so the Leafs’ PP had a shot to make up for their feeble earlier showings, but they didn’t end up doing much. The home team grinded out the next few minutes, and aside from a foiled partial break by Kadri, not much happened until Gardiner took a penalty with 68 seconds left to set up a 6-on-4 for the Leafs. Gardiner was dinged for tripping Reilly Smith; not to keep ranting about the calls, but I thought Smith went down easy. At any rate, it quickly burned Toronto; Yandle fired a shot in that was tipped onto the post. Jaromir Jagr potted the rebound to narrow the game to 3-2 with 56 seconds left.
It was a brutally tense, and scrambling, final minute...but they made it out. 3-2 is your final.
- Zach Hyman did not have a great 5v5 CF% this game, and I do not care. Winning SHG, primary assist on the first goal, superbly dogged forechecking. So there.
- Curtis McElhinney was both lucky and good tonight. I don’t blame him on the goals against, though he had a couple of things trickle through that were fortunate to stay out. But he also made some huge saves, and he earned the win. Great to get from your backup. (It was also McElhinney’s 50th career win. Congrats, Mac!)
- More records: as mentioned above, Matthews has the all-time Leaf record for rookie goals, with 35. Nylander extends his Leaf record for point streak by a rookie to 12 games. Jake Gardiner played in his 400th game.
- Short list of other players: the Kadri line was very good except for one clown-shoes shift in the second; Komarov had a quietly great two-point night; Rielly was all around very good. Kasperi Kapanen was very impressive in limited work, dazzling with his speed. Last point: I appreciate Martin feels like he has to stick up for the kids, but I don’t love an instigator penalty responding to a clean hit. Still, it ended well.
- Rielly Smith seemed to be the most dangerous Panther, with the goal and with multiple other good chances. Keith Yandle’s a good passer, and Derek MacKenzie (who you’ll remember is the Florida captain) was effective shorthanded. The team as a whole wasn’t great, though. But: Jagr is still a good player despite being 45.
- I really hope Reimer is okay. I don’t think Boyle meant to hurt him, but it was still unpleasantly reminiscent of hits we’ve seen Reimer take before. There weren’t many bright moments on this team from 2006 to 2014, and James Reimer was a big part of many of them. Take care, James.
- Frankly, the Leafs owned one period and then won sloppily. But wins are wins, wherever you get them, and this was a huge one. The Leafs are still in third place in the Atlantic division, one point ahead of Boston with a game in hand. They’re four points ahead of Tampa and five ahead of the New York Islanders and Carolina. It’s tight, and it’s going to be tight. But the Leafs are one win closer.
- Next game is Thursday against the Nashville Predators. Go Leafs Go./